Proceedings and Register of Free Blacks is a census conducted in 1803 on St. Thomas. It counted and listed the islands’ free people of color. The census contains age, occupation, where the person was from, how they got to St. Thomas, how they came to be free, and other details. This census reflects the people of African and mixed African and European ancestry who were free in St. Thomas at the beginning of the 1800s, 45 years before Emancipation in the Danish West Indies. Some people listed are described by their level of racial mixture, including terms that are no longer acceptable to use today. Their occupations include bakers, seamstresses, carpenters, masons, seamen, cooks, hairdressers, maids, cigar maker, rum shop owner, midwife, and others. The places they were from include Africa, St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, many of the other islands of the Caribbean, and North America. Some were born free, others bought their freedom, still others were given freedom by their former owner. Today, this census offers an opportunity to study the size, diversity, and occupations of free people of color in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas in 1803.
In this activity, students will use questions to examine an 1803 census of free Blacks on St. Thomas. Students will learn about censuses and discuss why this one from 1803 was undertaken. They will consider the themes of time, continuity and change by looking at the beliefs of the people during the time of slavery in the Danish West Indies, and consider how the development of a large community of free Blacks would have shaped opinions toward slavery. They will use information they gather from a map representing the 1803 census, and what they learned in class, to write an essay.
Primary Sources in this Activity
Suggested Teaching Instructions
This primary source activity includes the topic of slavery. Viewed as a sensitive topic for classroom lessons, teachers should consider their students ability to engage with the topic, give background information, create a safe environment for discussion, and be prepared to support their students’ questions and responses to the subject matter. Additionally, there are terms used in this primary source that describe race and people that are not acceptable to use today. These terms should be discussed prior to looking at the primary source with students.
The teacher can share the definition of the word census as needed. They can ask students to list the methods by which an enslaved person could become free, prior to general Emancipation in 1848. And, the teacher can share the information provided in the About section with students to introduce the 1803 Census.
Load the 1803 Census onto an interactive smart board using the link provided. If there is not a smart board, students can work in small groups at computers. There are arrows that allow you to move through the pages of the census. There are also thumbnails at the bottom that represent each page of the census. View a few pages in order to explore the census as a whole. After making general observations, navigate and focus on page 28 of the census. Have students make observations together of that page.
The 1803 Census was transcribed, translated and edited into a book called “St. Thomas 1803 Crossroads of the Diaspora (The 1803 Proceedings and Register of the Free Colored)”, edited and compiled by David W. Knight and Laurette de T. Prime. The pages from the book, pages 26 to 28, which correspond with page 28 of the original handwritten census, are included in this activity. The teacher and students should examine the original census first and analyze it as the primary source, and then the teacher can switch to viewing the translation in order to facilitate the discussion segment of this activity.
Analyze the Primary Source
You may load the Analyze a Written Document worksheet on the smart board or on computers so that you can lead students through answering the questions, print the worksheet and distribute to your students, or adapt the questions from the worksheet to create your own. Primary Source Analysis Worksheets
Using the Analyze a Written Document worksheet, lead students through document analysis and a discussion about the details they observe. Students may have trouble reading the original census document because it is written in script and it is in Danish. A transcribed and translated version of page 28 of the census is provided, however some parts of the original handwritten document are needed to complete the worksheet questions. After viewing the original handwritten census and reviewing page 28, the teacher may load the english translation of page 28 in order to continue the activity.
The transcribed and translated pages presented are from the book “St. Thomas 1803, Crossroads of the Diaspora (The 1803 Proceedings and Register of the Free Colored)”. The book was edited and compiled by David W. Knight and Laurette de T. Prime. The translation of the Danish text contained in the 1803 census, for use in the book, was completed by Gary T. Horlacher.
Who were the free colored people on St. Thomas in 1803: The class can examine the information included like names, where the people were from, their age, occupation and how they became free. Was the free black community in St. Thomas diverse? Use clues from the census to explain your answer. Do students recognize all the occupations listed? What were the ways these people state they came to be free?
Why Take a Census: Ask students what they know or remember about the last Census, taken in 2020? Why does the US government conduct the census? How often do they take a census? (Every 10 years.) Is the census data taken in current times used to benefit the community? Explain? Are there ways census data can be used against the community? Explain?
Have students imagine 1803 in the Danish West Indies, remind students that the islands were a slave society in 1803, that slavery at that time was tied to race, and this census is counting free colored people and taking information about them including where they were born, how long they were on island and how they came to be free. Why might the Danish government in 1803 want this information? Could this information be used to control a population? To create rules applicable just to this group? What do students think, discuss.
The teacher can share with students that these early censuses, including the free colored census of 1803 and a later one in 1831, were taken during periods of great change in the islands’ society, or after some sort of crisis or concern either in the Danish West Indies or in the wider Caribbean. Ask students, where in the Caribbean was there revolutionary upheaval in the late 1700s and very early 1800s? Prompt the answer if needed, the Haitian Revolution occurred between 1791 to 1804. Ask students if they think that revolution caused concern throughout other colonies of the Caribbean including the Danish West Indies. Have students explain their answer.
Censuses and family history research: How might the free colored census information from 1803 and other years be used today by Afro-Caribbean people from the Virgin Islands? (For genealogical and heritage research, to research their family tree, ancestors and history.)
Discussion of time and changes in beliefs: What types of beliefs might have existed in 1803 that allowed African people and their descendants to be enslaved? What beliefs allowed some people of color to be free and other people of color to be enslaved? How might the development of a free community of people of color shaped and affected general opinions toward slavery, emancipation, and freedom in the Danish West Indies? Explain.
Explore the maps of St. Thomas found at Maps of the Lesser Antilles – University of Copenhagen (ku.dk). The maps are part of the project “In the Same Sea: The Lesser Antilles as a Common World of Slavery and Freedom”.
Focus on the map entitled “Origin of free people of color, St. Thomas 1803”. Use the map to identify where the free people of color on St. Thomas in 1803 are from? From which island(s) are there the largest number of people? Were many of the Caribbean islands represented? Do any of the places surprise you? Which ones and why?
Using the 1803 Census, what you learned in class, and the information you gathered from the map “Origin of free people of color, St. Thomas 1803”, write an essay discussing who were the free people of color in St. Thomas, Danish West Indies in 1803? Where were they from? What was their status and their condition of life compared to other free people, and compared to the enslaved?